Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Of The Year (Volume Eleven) - Jonathan Strahan (ed.)

This is the eleventh annual collection of SF&F curated by Jonathan Strahan. Previous entries in the series have included some absolutely stellar work, and the opportunity to explore some great new authors, so I had high hopes for this one – and, generally speaking, they were met.

Much like the last couple of years, this is a very diverse collection of material. There’s sharp, punchy , grimy fantasy from Joe Abercrombie – bringing us a dynamic duo, a thief and a fighter, and unleashing them on the world with acerbic humour, and a low tolerance for mistakes. There’s the creeping body horror wrapped around modernity of Sam Miller’s “Things with Beards”. There’s sweeping epic fantasy, new worlds defined alongside personal triumphs, and more often personal tragedies – like Seth Dickinson’s “Laws of Night and Silk”, and there’s fantasy like folk tales, pulling on half remembered truths to shape something new.

There’s big questions on display throughout the collection, though their answers differ. “The Great Detective”, for example tackles the idea of what it means to be sentient, cloaking the query in a delightful blend of steampunk and Holmesian period drama. The mystery is intriguing, and the protagonist charming, and we rattle through the streets of a London laced with ghosts and clockwork mechanicals whilst pondering the meaning of their existence. Then there’s Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire Foxfire” – where worryingly intelligent animals cut deals with gods and men, examining who they are and who they wish to be, and occasionally cutting the odd throat. This feels like another strand – a narrative with the feel of a legend, mixed with something new. The chatacters claw their way off the page, compelling, often dark, sometimes deadly. There’s stories here which can be disquieting – watching three friends and a new arrival sit around a table and tell stories, reveal something of themselves, their vulnerabilities in Alice Sola Kim’s “Successor, Usurper, Replacement” feels like teetering on the edge of a cliff, unable to warn someone stepping off.

Then there’s N.K. Jemisin’s “Red Dirt Witch”, a meditation on class, race and family, with a supernatural twist to it. The prose is evocative, bringing a small town of the American South to life, as we watch Emmaline, single mother, only occasionally supernatural, try and preserve her family from otherworldly influences. The supernatural here accentuates the questions of class, race and family that Jemisin explores, and makes for a very powerful story. On the other hand, it’s notll serious - there’s the wry comedy of “Even the Crumbs Were Delicious”, a story somewhat reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick – watching the well meaning, bumbling protagonist try and hunt down the parents of two lost teenagers is entertaining and rather sweet; that they’re high as kites on 3d-printed designer drugs is an added bonus, and often rather funny.

As with last year, there’s always going to be some stories you like better than others. That said, the range on display here means there’s something for everyone, and the aggregate level of quality continues to be very high. There’s a lot going on here – stories that challenge, that delight, tradgedies and comedies, broken worlds, aliens and fairy tales, all inside an extremely imaginative package.  On that basis, I’ve no hesitation in recommending it to lovers of sci-fi and fantasy–and also to everyone else. It’s packed with imaginative, ingenious stories, and is very, very difficult to put down. Thoroughly recommended.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute - Jonathan L. Howard

"The Fear Institute" is the third in the Johannes Cabal series. I'd echo other reviewers and say that you don't need to have read the first two to enjoy this latest outing. A very interesting outing it is, too. Cabal is an unapologetic, unabashed necromancer, with a streak of pragmatism a mile wide, and a streak of sarcasm and distaste for fools which is, if possible, slightly wider. It's indicative of the subtlety of the author that Cabal isn't a gibbering villain intent on world domination - he is simply a professional, who has set out on a particularly unpleasant vocation for reasons of his own, and is acquitting himself as such.

Whilst Cabal is the focal point of the book, and clearly the dominant personality on every page, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the author's talent with his world, and with other characters. The world is constructed carefully, each area wonderfully provided with a lushness of detail; it is easy to visualise each of the exotic locales that Cabal visits with his companions. My only complaint is that each location seems slightly silo'd from the others - they can each feel like separate and distinct `mini adventures', without much connective cloth between them.

By contrast, the supporting characters suffer almost the opposite problem. From single appearance non-entities to several of the larger supporting cast in the book, I never really got a feel for any personalities. Most character seemed to exist largely to act as plot indicators, or as someone for Cabal to spar with (mostly verbally). It's a shame that some of these characters didn't get more of a chance to show off their depth, but I suppose this was limited by the pacing, which is more Boys Own Adventure than War & Peace. I'd also add that all of the characters shine in dialogue - whilst we don't get much in the way of introspection outside of Johannes Cabal, we do get a lot of witty repartee, which succeeds at being cleverly constructed, simply clever, and bitingly funny.

The plot is largely silliness, an excuse to romp about the aforementioned lush backgrounds, watching Cabal make snide remarks at people. The appropriation of the Lovecraft mythos was a bit of a surprise, but though it may grate on a devotee, it eventually merges pleasantly into the narrative.

Overall, it's a freewheeling ramble through an interesting enough world; but the star here is Johannes Cabal, the central character, laced with bitterness, irony, and dialogue filled with particularly dark humour; definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Luna: Wolf Moon - Ian McDonald

Luna: Wolf Moon is the second in Ian McDonald’s Luna series. I took a look at New Moon, the first in the series, back in 2015. Its portrayal of a Moon split between five family-run mega-corporations, where every breath has to be paid for, was stark, unforgiving, and captivating. The sequel thus had some fairly large shoes to fill.

The sequel brings us a world whose balance has abruptly changed. Where five families, the ‘Five Dragons’ ran the Moon, now there are four. Corta Helio, providers of helium used in Earth’s fusion plants, have fallen. Their holdings have been seized by another family, their staff appropriated, and the family that served as senior management either fled or brutally killed. The world is out of balance. The MacKenzie’s, one of the other Dragon families, have seized Corta Helio assets, and are now consolidating. The other Dragons are alternately nervous, and looking to shift matters to their advantage. This gives us a chance to see some of the Moon that we haven’t explored before. There’s the MacKenzie Metals HQ, lit by mirrors which also act as smelters. Or the mysterious court of the Sun family, with a similar penchant for light arranged through cunning engineering – but deployed with an eye toward manipulating power, rather than controlling it.

The moon is also still, well, the Moon. Everything has a price, and nothing is free. There’s something of an eye toward the underside of the world here, keeping track of how those who aren’t industrial magnates spend their time and money. There are sections set on the surface, for example, following prospecting teams – and they’re terrifying. That any pressure leak, any incident, any lapse in control, could be fatal – either instantly or, more horrifyingly, over several hours, is a common refrain. It leaves the text and the reader with a running thread of caution, an effective link into the world of Luna. The Moon is, it turns out, always trying to kill those that live on or in it.

This is a world of triple redundant systems, of airtight bunkers scattered in case of emergencies, a world where a gunshot is a catastrophe in the making. It’s lethal and beautiful at the same time, and if we saw that in New Moon, Wolf Moon emphasises the point once more, and gives us new ways to see the harsh, uncaring beauty of the Moon. This is especially so given that there are a few segues onto Earth, a world where oxygen is considered a right, and not a privilege – and the costs of travel in both directions are explored in detail, both the physical (shattered muscles, broken bones) and the more abstract. Wolf Moon gives us a world on the edge – either rof disaster, or of becoming something greater than before.

There’s a whole host of characters in play here, and everyone probably has their favourites from the first book. Watching the relationship between Ariel Corta and her bodyguard was a delight this time. Ariel is a woman learning to live with the consequences of the last book, struggling with her own lack of power, and the level of dependence she now has on others – a fish out of water on several fronts. Watching her bicker and backslide, fall into a hole and plan her way out of it – well, it makes for a gripping read.

Wagner, one of the other survivors of the Corta clan, is a ‘wolf’ – torn between extremes of personality, depending upon the calendar. Our time with Wagner gives us access to the odd world of the wolf pack, a space where human loyalty ties up in a rather odd, charmingly edged sociological expression. Wagner has to deal with the disruption of his habits by family, and by the change in circumstances – and that struggle, the desire to bring together or break apart from pack and family, is one of the central cores of the narrative – and one with tenderness, truth and pain at its heart. There’s more here – Mackenzie and Corta, Sun…all of the five families contribute heroes and villains of their own. It’s to the credit of the text that each feels human – even when we only dip into their loves and feuds for a brief period.

The plot – well, without spoilers, it’s a tense political thriller. There’s plots and counterplots happening here, with wonderfully byzantine complexity. There’s paradigm shifts in political geography here, alongside knife-fights and runs through hard vacuum. The prose hangs together well, with a tight narrative which compels the reader to keep reading, to see just how it’s all going to end.

Is it worth reading? New Moon was one of the most interesting sci-fi novels of 2015, with smart ideas on humanity and economies matched by street smarts, political brawls and murder in the streets. Luna: Wolf Moon turns that up to eleven – it’s a fascinating story, which is also a tense, enthralling read.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Bear and the Serpent - Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Bear and the Serpent is the second in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall series. I read the first recently, and was favourably impressed.  This sequel follows Maniye and her band as they head south, into the lands of the Serpent – which is a very strange place indeed.

The Kingdom of the Serpent is set along a river, surrounded by an arid, marginal landscape. The delta. The river, though, thrives with life, both on the banks and in the water. There’s more than a few crocodiles floating lazily along the currents, and quite a few of those may actually be shape-shifted people. This is a land built around notions of order, and of what the Serpent priests refer to as civilisation. Where the more northern climes were populated by feuding clans, here there is an absolute monarchy, backed by noble houses. Which, of course, means politics. But, as alluded to in the first book, this is also a civilisation in crisis. An absolute monarchy, ruled by blood, was not prepared for the birth of competent twins. Now parties are split over the succession, and politics has the chance to become the edge of a blade. The South carries this whiff about it – a determination to keep the peace, and a willingness to sacrifice what may be perceived as right in favour of a greater good. It’s a thronging hive of towering buildings, nestled in a swamp – and in both cases, the atmosphere is one suggesting danger lurks just beneath the surface.

We also spend some time back in the Crown of the World. As the Wolves and the Tiger settle into an uneasy peace, the Bear finds that they have a new problem. The North is familiar from the previous novel, but its cooler climes and less sinuous relations make for a nice break between the intrigues of the Serpents. We get to see a little more as well – the barren desolation of the Northern coast is well done, the Seal tribes living there relying on fishing to survive, thought odd by their compatriots for living near the water. The Crown of the World is a region looking for direction, for reasons to continue old feuds, or start up new ones – and that makes for nervous meetings, and a sense of encroaching doom.

The characters are broadly familiar from the first book. It’s great to spend more time with one of the Bear, those slow, rumbling, reluctant warriors. Loud Thunder is very much unwilling to lead, a man more content in being alone than even the rest of his people. But he’s drawn to doing the best thing for those around him, trying to convince all of the disparate clans and tribes that it’s better to work together than tear each other apart over old grudges. That shift in character, that journey from a man who just wants to be left alone, and let the world go its own way, to one determined to shepherd scrapping groups toward a coalition of the willing is a hard one. It’s one drawn out by conflict, by self-analysis, and by a willingness to face a need for change. Loud Thunder is a man realising his potential, however unwillingly.

We’re also following Maniye in the south, surrounded by her crew of outcasts and reprobates. She’s no longer the scared girl we saw in The Tiger and the Wolf. There’s more confidence here, a sense of certainty that was missing before. That said, Maniye Many Tracks, the legend, the champion from the north, is now learning that she has responsibilities. She has a band to look out for, as they look out for her – and the rise of that understanding, that she is the face and voice of her people, is fascinating to watch. Maniye remains a strong personality, and she’s slowly forming into a force to be reckoned with – and the reader is along for the ride on that transition.

There’s a whole raft of supporting characters floating around here, from rulers to hedge witches. Charmers and vicious killers – and some who are both at the same time. They’re there in abundance though, keeping the world alive for the reader – and if some are less sympathetic than others, they don’t feel any less real for that.


The plot – well, without spoilers, some sections feel like a political thriller in a fantasy world. There’s daring escapes, more than a little scheming, and the fate of nations hanging in the balance. But there’s also an intimacy there, tracking the characters personal journeys – and a sense of being involved in a larger conflict bubbles through the text. Tchaikovsky has written a clever, compelling page turner, with kinetic duels, high stakes, and characters you’re drawn to care about – and that means The Bear and the Serpent is a cracking sequel to The Tiger and the Wolf

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Ninth Rain - Jen WIlliams

The Ninth Rain is the first in a new fantasy series from Jen Williams. Her previous series, the Copper Cat trilogy was a charming piece of swashbuckling fantasy; the short version is that this new work is just as entertaining and intriguing a read.

The world of The Ninth Rain is one shaped by conflicts, both internal and external. The external are devastating; creatures falling in waves, devouring everything they touch, slowly forming the land into something different, hollowing out people and using them as puppets. These are global conflagrations, their scars left in the earth, and in the scattered wreckage of the war hulks that poison the land around them. The people of this world have an ancient enemy, and although it’s now believed broken, or at least quiescent, there’s no denying the impact that these ‘Rains’ have had.

That said, this is a world with plenty of other issues. The cities of the Eborans, the long lived champions against the Rains, are broken. The Eborans themselves are decimated by plague, and eyed with a mixture of horror and suspicion by their neighbours. The mythical war-beasts they used in battle during the Rains have vanished. Whilst the Eboran empire falls to its knees, other polities fight against the rising mutation of the land by wreckage from the Rains – and a religious order holds sway over a group of women who can channel life from everything around them and make, well, mostly fire. The fey-witches are, they say, dangerous, and have to be controlled – that in doing so, the order makes tidy profit, is purely coincidental.

Into this world of shattered history step our three main characters. The first is Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon – sometime Lady, full time adventurer. Middle-aged, intelligent and rather feisty, she’s also an antiquarian, travelling across the world to investigate the artifacts left behind by the Rains, to try and understand what it is that brings them down upon the world. She has a streak of ruthlessness, matched by a strong sense of fair play and empathy. Vintage is an extrovert, seemingly strong, confident and riding a wave of self-assurance which batters aside a lot of the barriers that her rank and funding don’t. Watching her mix bluff energy and enthusiasm with incisive intellect is delightful.

Vintage is joined by one of the last of the Ebor, Tormalin the Oathless. He’s a man on the run from the broken shadow of his people. He’s now seemingly interested in decent wine, warm beds (his and others) and other aspects of the epicurean lifestyle. On the other hand, he’s extremely competent with an extremely lethal sword, and is Vintage’s long-suffering partner and/or bodyguard. If her past hides a few dark secrets, his own, wrapped in the decline of his people in plague and madness, is no more difficult. Tormalin embodies tragedy, and his efforts to break free of the mould, away from his people as heroes, and their new reality as diminished monsters are fascinating – you can’t help rooting for him, even when he’s being crass, arrogant, or just plain wrong – because he can also be warm, charming, and rather clever.

The last of the trio is one of the fell-witches. She’s first seen in confinement at the monastery which controls these practitioners, under less than ideal conditions. Where Vintage is world-wise, she’s an ingĂ©nue, albeit one with focus, determination, and the ability to summon fireballs out of thin air. Where both Vintage and Tormalin are clear, at least, in who they are, our fey-witch has never really had the chance to find out. She’s always been a thing – dangerous, valuable, lethal – and never a person. Her journey is one of discovering who it is that she wants to become, and that understanding of her personhood is handled with raw and genuine emotional depth.

I want to characterise the plot as fantasy archaeology with fireballs, and it absolutely is that. But it’s other things as well. It’s the story of family, for example, both those you’re thrown in with – as the group struggles to work together and solve the issues confronting them – and your own blood. It’s the story of the collapse of a great civilisation into blood and death, and the sacrifices that made that possible It’s got the potential to go into epic territory, with war beasts, great evils and disturbing villains – but also the petty evils of bureaucracy, and the petty triumphs of friendship.

Overall, this is a delightful, absorbing start to a new series for Williams; it’s got a lot of great ideas, intelligent things to say, and a cracking adventure running through them.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Tiger And The Wolf - Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Tiger And The Wolf is the first in a new series from Adrian Tchaikovsky. He’s well known for his expansive “Shadows of the Apt” fantasy series; I was also incredibly impressed last year by his standalone sci-fi piece, The Children of Time. Expectations of this new series were, therefore, rather high. Fortunately it turns out that Tchaikovsky has delivered.

The Tiger and the Wolf are two clannish social groupings, spread out across a geography shared with other tribes. The Tiger once ruled here, and memories of their historical oppression live on in the Wolf, and in the other tribes that once bowed to the Tiger. The Wolf, however, discovered iron. In a world shaped by bronze, their weapons and armour gave them a tactical edge – and so the power of the Tiger was broken, its members harried back into their stronghold. The other groups quickly found they’d given over one master for another. The Wolf is always hungry – and rules the other tribes with a heavy hand. There’s a fantastic mythology in play here – each tribe having a totem deity, each approaching their interactions with that deity with a certain degree of care, but an absolute faith as well. There’s stories laced through the background of the text – the old feuds between Tiger and Wolf. The songs and stories which provide for the origin of the tribes. The history of small skirmishes and old wars, carved by stone clubs and bronze knives into the skin of the survivors. Tchaikovsky gives us a society on the edge of a precipice, tied together by shared histories, faiths and, occasionally, magic.

This is a world where the soul of an individual is tied to a particular totem – born of the Wolf, one is a wolf; and in that link, people have the capacity to Step. Stepping essentially involves transforming into the form of ones totem animal, and this shapes the tribal societies. We see the differences in the clannish, driven Wolves, in the skittish Deer, the gregarious Horse and the solitary Bear. It’s a piece of everyday magic, but it takes the already convincing setting and gives it a vivid splash of thaumaturgical colour.  The priests of the tribe can speak to their gods, to be sure, but the people can live in their forms – and this shapes the world they live in.

This changing of shape is part of the problem for our protagonist, a young woman called Maniye. Born of a liaison between a member of the Wolf and one of their ancient enemies, the Tiger, she has trouble setting her own identity. Those around her are of the wolf, good or bad, pack and alone – but Maniye occupies a liminal space, where the Wolf meets the Tiger. She is of the Wolf tribe, but not part of it – and so she flits between a desire to blend in, to be something of the pack which surrounds her – and a desire to be something else. A person can only carry one animal shape, she is told – and hers, mirroring their inimical relations in the concrete world, are at war. Maniye is a thoughtful individual, with an ability to think things through clashing with a natural impulsiveness, and a desire to do the right thing. But she’s still trying to work out who she wants to be, and who she is – and her struggles in that regard aren’t just mental.

She’s joined by an eclectic cast as she struggles to define herself – from the Serpent priest, who clearly knows more than they’re saying, to the Wolf chieftain, determined to force his daughter into the role he has planned for her and further his own ambitions. There’s a quiet humanity for much of the cast – and even those we see as villains have their own lives, losses and needs. Conflicts here tend to be personal, both emotionally and physically – and so the antagonists are less cackling supervillains than they are individuals convinced of their own truths, and willing to subject others to their points of view.  In any event, Maniye is a complex, cleverly drawn individual, and her effort to find her own truths is very compulsive reading.

I won’t get spoilery with the plot, which is something of a page turner. But it’s an absolutel cracking coming of age tale. The emotional resonance is electric, and makes the whole thing rather difficult to put down. There’s old allegiances here, and close-won knife fights. There’s mysticism and magic. There;s a whole world on the edge of becoming something more – and possibly something better.

In any case, this is a great start to a new series, and absolutely worth a look.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

With Blood Upon The Sand - Bradley P. Beaulieu

With Blood Upon the Sand is the second full length novel in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s “The Song of the Shattered Sands” series. I was very impressed by the first entry in the series, and the collection of short stories which came out shortly afterwards and served as a prequel. So my hopes were high going into this one – and, not to give the game away, I think it came out rather well. 

We’re back in the shifting sands around the city of Sharakai for this second novel. It’s still startlingly evocative, carrying a sense of the Arabian Nights, laced with blood and dark magic. The desert is a livening ocean, an uncaring environment happy to swallow the unprepared. There’s some more use of sand skiffs here, using the winds of the desert to drive ships across the dunes for trade and diplomacy. But the desert is still a stark place. It has a sense of mystery to it as well when the moon shines over the sands, there are darker things stirring – blood mages, tribes of resistance fighters, supernatural creatures – all shifting out of the shadows. 

A seeming bulwark against the eddies of change embodied in the desert, the city of Sharakai has come to life again. Tensions between the forces of the Kings, the mage-lords of the city, and the larger population of the city seem to be growing by the day. It’s an environment that lets Beaulieu explore and expose the causes of that sort of tension – as the authorities crack down on a population by emphasising their power, they drive members of that population into further acts of rebellion, often assisted by third parties. His cycle leads into more extreme actions, and even where most of those on all sides are working with the best of intentions, the results can still be bloody. There’s some interesting thoughts here on inherited grudges, a sense of tensions from injustices going back generations. There’s also a further exploration of the historical atrocities which left the Kings in power in Sharakai, and whether the price paid for a life and future in the past is considered acceptable by any of the participants in the present. All of this provides for a rich, lively, believable setting – a sense of a greater, fascinating world happening around our protagonist.

Speaking of protagonist, we’re back with Ceda, the heroine-of-sorts from the last book. She’s now operating within the elite troops of the Kings, and that’ having an impact on her worldview. There’s a focus here, and a sense of living on the edge, which permeates through all of her interactions. At the same time, she’s being forced to understand the situation from the position of forces she’s been struggling against – watching the consequences of guerrilla actions, trying to maintain order on a rapidly sparking powderkeg. If Ceda had few illusions before, they’re now fully lost under the mask which she has to wear. Ceda is, however, a clever woman, and one with a good degree of self-awareness; she struggles against both the external situation – where much of the conflict seems to be wrapped in history – and the internal, as she tries to conquer or control her own demons. If she’s a little quieter now, slightly more calculating, that’s no bad thing – and her meditations on friendship, on the way that those around her can fall into and out of her life, and whether the ties that bind them really do – are both heartbreaking and fascinating. 

She’s joined by a whole cast of other characters, of course. We can see a bit more of the Twelve Kings, individuals corrupted by power, or using it to do what is necessary, or, perhaps, neither – their agenda is clearer here, but no less byzantine. Then there’s the forces of the tribes, desperate to tear down centuries of oppression; Macide, their erstwhile leader, and his colleagues, are quickly ramping up their game. The narrative wants to ask us what price is too cruel to pay for freedom, and Macide and the rest of the rebels are a piece of the answer. Though they don’t have the same level of screen time as Ceda, these rebels are still an intriguing bunch. The same might be said for Ceda’s new associates in the Kings elite troops – here there are smaller stories to share, likes, dislikes, old loves, older mistakes. There’s a plethora of characters on display here, and most of them end up doing more than a few unpleasant things – but it’s to the credit of their characterisation that they’re never just monsters. Blood magicians, yes. Extremists? Absolutely. Oppressive tyrants? Sure. But each carries around their own story to explain why they’re the hero – and if we only see the edges of that story, still the book makes us feel for them. Sharakai isn’t a place holding tight to black and white morality – but one where everyone may be justified, and also wrong. The characters embody that – complex, flawed, often brittle people, doing what they think is best, and often seeing it end badly, spiral out of control – or both. They are, in that way, real people, and their complexity and their flaws make their struggles both more human and very real. 

The plot – well, as ever, no spoilers. Ceda is trying to work out how to deal with who she is now, and decide what it is that she wants – be it revolution, catharsis, or – well, anything else. In between her struggles to decide who she is, some of her erstwhile comrades are making sacrifices of their own – sometimes rather literally. There’s black magic here, as well as rather a lot of scheming. There’s riots and duels, dreams of better futures snuffed out by a darker present; there’s murders and abductions, and a feeling of rising tension, of matters coming to a head. It’s asking hard questions, turning to the reader for answers, and getting them to keep turning the pages to see which way things will go next.

This is an ambitious sequel, larger in scope than its predecessor – and it pulls it off magnificently. It’s intelligent, well drawn and a lot of fun to read – and so I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.